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Hunter soldiers reflect bravery and fear in Anzac letters

on 2019年7月13日

The Battle of Lone Pine during the Gallipoli Campaign, 1915.“PEOPLE at home have not the faintest idea of what war is. If they got but one glance at things as they are it would be the greatest shock they ever had.”

So wrote Private Thorold Toll, of Wickham – a scion of the great transport business family – after witnessing the reality of the war on the Western Front in 1917.

“Since last writing to you I have gone through several of the most horrible days of my life,” Private Toll continued in a letter to his family.

“Our company had six killed and twenty odd wounded – 20 per cent casualties. Our section officer was wounded in the leg as we were making our way up to the front line. He was directly between me and the bursting shell and only for his leg intervening it would have got me. The shellfire is awful and the saps are very shallow and filled with dead.”

Private Toll had few more chances to describe the war. He was captured by the Germans on April 11, 1917, and made a prisoner of war. A few weeks later he and three other prisoners were killed instantly when an Allied shell exploded nearby while they were unloading ammunition from a train.

But his eyewitness testimony lives on, along with hundreds of other first-person accounts by letter-writers and diarists from every corner of the Hunter Region. Sometimes their observations are humorous. Sometimes they are grim. Mostly they are sombre and sad, particularly when modern-day readers pause to recall that most of these diarists were scarcely more than boys when they left their homes to face some of the most hellish conditions imaginable.

In the new book, The Hunter Region in The Great War, first-person accounts have been used to bring the stark reality of the war into focus. Some contributors offer just a few poignant lines, like the young Carrington man – soon to be killed – who writes to his mother urging her not to mourn when the time comes.

Others are spared for the whole war, and offer clear and terrible commentary on battle after battle, from Gallipoli to the Armistice. Among the diarists are some particular stars.

Salt Ash gunner James Dalton, for example, writes with penetrating analysis of the bigger picture of the war, while commenting pointedly on many small and interesting sidelights.

Consider these remarks of Dalton, while still in camp in Egypt, about the possible deployment of Australia’s troops:

“No announcement has been made, nor probably will be made, so that our officers are divided in opinion. The majority think the south of France, but I have an idea that we are going against the Turks. We learned from the papers of steady bombardment of the forts on the Dardanelles by our ships and it seems unlikely that they would content themselves with this, but that the reducing of the coastal forts must be followed by an invasion of the country. This means men, and we are the only available force.

“They are going to have trouble with our chaps under fire but it will not be to get them up – it will be to hold them back. They are going to fight like devils.

These men are not going back. They will go on or die fighting, for all realise they have a name to make for a new nation.”

Private Ben Champion, who became a leading Hunter local historian after the war, wrote extensively of his battlefield experiences until 1918, when he was wounded and lost a leg.

Here’s how Private Chapmandescribed his introduction to Gallipoli in November 1915, as the campaign was winding down:

“Surely these men were not the spic and span soldiers we had seen leaving Australia a year before! Nearly all had beards or had not shaved for weeks; all were dirty, their breeches hacked off at the knees, and few were wearing puttees.”

Lance Corporal Robert Kerr wrote home to Maitland in early 1916 summing up his sad feelings after the withdrawal from Gallipoli and delivering his own blunt assessment of the operation:

Lance Corporal Kerr wrote: “We were all very sorry to leave Gallipoli after the enormous sacrifice of good lives there, but the whole thing was a mistake right through, I reckon.”

The prescient Gunner Dalton, after some time on Gallipoli, wrote home with an almost perfect prediction:

“We are going to lose a lot more men. The real figures when they are compiled at the end of the war will be staggering – and the work will take some time, very much longer than the majority of people expect, but I think if we do not relax our efforts we will come out on top, although possibly the complete overthrow of Germany that is contemplated at present may be found to be beyond our reach.”

Ben Champion described his first view of a proper Western Front battlefield, at Pozieres:

“Heaps of used ammunition, shells and war litter of all kinds, broken rifles, equipment, guns, boxes of biscuits and ammunition were strewn everywhere. Soon we came to an area with the sickly smell of dead bodies, and half-buried men, mules and horses came into view. Here was war wastage properly. Germans and British mixed together, lying in all positions, and there wasn’t a man but thought more seriously of what was ahead.”

Private Albert Avard was also at Pozieres, and he wrote to his parents in Thornton from an English hospital, describing the symptoms of shell shock:

“There are about fifty cases here, and you can see shell shock in all its forms. Some, like myself, have a trouble to speak; some cannot speak at all. Some cannot hear; others have twitchings in the face, and are in a constant shake all over. Anyhow, the cure is a matter of time generally, as a lot of cases end as suddenly as they start, through some excitement or such like.

Our battalion got a pretty good doing at Pozieres. The night we went in there were about 1100 men in it, and they came out in five days time with 120.”

Lance Corporal Robert Kerr: “We were all very sorry to leave Gallipoli after the enormous sacrifice of good lives there, but the whole thing was a mistake right through, I reckon.”

Australia’s official war historian Charles Bean – who later described Pozieres as “more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on Earth” – wondered how the Australians stood it:

“Take even a Central District farmer or a Newcastle miner, take the hardest man you know and put him to the same test and it is a question whether the ordeal would not break even his spirit.”

It wasn’t just the fighting, but the climate too that hurt. As if to prove Bean right, here are the words of Lambton miner Peter William Johnson, of the 45th Battalion, in a letter to his mother during the winter of 1916:

“It was terrible cold. Everything was frozen and when we wanted water we used to get hold of a couple of sand bags to carry it up as the water was all ice. We went in the line on the 17 February and it started to rain and that started all the frozen ground to thaw. We were up to our waist in mud and slush it was a marvel how we took to it with the cold and mud. We was wet through for a week and no sleep and a lot of our chaps got trench feet and for myself I was praying for death to get out of the misery of it.”

Private Bob Gibson of Knorrit Flat: “If I ever have the good fortune to get away from this war, I shall never forget what I have had to go through over here and dreadful sights I have seen.”

Private Bob Gibson, from the small settlement of Knorrit Flat, pulled no punches in describing the horror of the war. Here’s what he wrote after the battle of Messines:

“I saw my best mates smashed and battered that way it made me sick to look at them. The Germans got it bad from our shellfire and they got no quarter from us. A man will do things in the madness of battle that he will never think of doing any other time.

“Well Mother, for five days we fought and worked and then came out for a few days rest. I was sleepy, tired and sick from gas and other horrible smells from dead men who had been lying about for weeks. When we went back to the trenches we had to bury hundreds of dead that had been lying about for three weeks. You can just imagine what it would be like. It used to make one sick every time.”

After the hell of Passchendale in October 1917 Gibson wrote:

“If getting killed by the thousands is glorious, it was glorious in the Ypres battle. My battalion came out 200 strong out of a thousand. It breaks my heart when I think of it.

“If I ever have the good fortune to get away from this war, I shall never forget what I have had to go through over here and dreadful sights I have seen. The whole thing from start to finish seems like some horrible nightmare.”

· The Hunter Region in The Great War, by Greg and Sylvia Ray, is available for $49.95 from the Herald and other Hunter Fairfax publications, and from participating newsagents and bookshops.

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